Usability Engineers vs Designer: the process problem.

Another week has come (mine starts on Tuesday, you can do those things when you live in Europe). More and more, we see problems surfacing not from having the wrong people in place but rather the wrong process. My previous post discusses the rampant wrong process with prototyping. Here I want to touch on the process issues with usability testing and design. I want you to consider this familiar and completely unnecessary scenario:

 A Designer works on a conceptual design with the customer. Then he works out a detailed design into a prototype that can be tested. So far so good. But what goes wrong is that the Usability Engineer is often disconnected to either the design concept or the detailed design. The usability engineer ends up suggesting new designs that totally contradict the conceptual design. The designer is gone. The engineering team implements the changes and the result is a Frankenstein’s monster that despite the best UX resources, fails in the marketplace.
 The obvious problem is the process disconnect between Designer and Usability. And the problems are serious. I want to discuss two aspects to these problems and how to resolve them: namely how False Negatives in a usability test and how to deal with Usability Engineer’s design advice.

False negatives

When usability testing is conducted without input from the designer, this can lead to many false negative issues in the usability test. Examples of the errors that can result include:

  • Early tests will report usability issues with conventions that a user is expected to learn over time or with a different task flow than being tested.
  • Early tests especially lower fidelity ones may not catch learnability/system feedback issues due to lack of visual fidelity needed to communicate with the user
  • Test moderators, not knowing the underlying concept may inadvertently introduce the topic or task in a way that is at odds with the design, thereby confusing the test subject.

This list is just the tip of the iceberg. These negative side effects are completely avoidable by making sure the Designer and Usability Engineer work together on the Usability Test script, identifying tasks and their importance. Also the task order when that is appropriate for a test (for example one step is a required gateway: e.g. sign up). Also let the Usability Engineer attend some of the conceptual design sessions and, OMG let them participate in the conceptual design; so they gain a thorough understand of it. Conversely, Designers should observe the usability tests whenever possible. The tests themselves can be so much more inspiring and vivid than even the best written report.

Usability Engineer’s design advice

It is an expected part of the Usability Engineer’s work to include not just data and analysis; but also design advice or alternative designs. This does not need to be a problem. But without setting expectations, the innocent Product Manager or software engineer confronted with new contradictory designs can quickly conclude that the UX profession is a screwed up group who cannot make up their minds.

Among the possible problems with blindly taking Usability Engineer design advice is:

  • Designs may not be an ideal solution for the problems they have discovered
  • Designs often recommend things that will cause usability problems elsewhere by introducing conceptually non-standard interactions
  • Designs ignore larger issues since their advice focuses on the testing and not the larger issues (e.g. Business and Technical requirements which may lead to a different solution than suggested).
    • A common example of this is when the Usability Engineer suggests something that is technically impossible for the requirements or constraints.

These and other issues with the Usability Engineer design advice harms everyone’s credibility both designer and usability engineer. This is not to say that Usability Engineers should not give their advice. But it is absolutely important to set the right expectations. Usability Engineer design advice should be viewed as input to the problem not the solution. If the Usability Engineer includes the design rationale this will often give the vital information for coming up with a more ideal solution.

The design rationale should enumerate the objective reasons for the alternative design. This allows the designer to bridge the problem design with a solution based on objective criteria instead of personal taste.

[Objective information is one that either refers to the usability data itself (e.g. only 2 out of 12 users understood this command) or conceptual data based on requirements, (This design does not appeal to our target users or is not constant with the image/branding of the company). Both types of information can lead to a solution. Comments like, “I don’t like that color” or “It doesn’t look right to me.” do not lead to workable solutions.]

Usability data misinforming design

Usability data is rarely communicated with the limitations or short-comings in the data and this is a real pity. All too often a usability engineering report reads like a set of demands and commandments without stipulating under what conditions this advice or anaylsis should be given. Things like the significance, persistence, sampling issues, etc. are often underplayed. Again a faulty process is the problem. Many usability engineers are under pressure to work quickly and also find dramatic and significant results. This can put a Usability Engineer between a rock and a hard place: asked to review a product with three of Janitor’s friends and then come up with a list of “just the most important recommendations.” Ah if life were only so easy? Yet we are constantly being put in this position. The client maybe always king, but findings that can include a little context setting would help the end-users of the usability reports.

Lessons learned

  • Designers and Usability Engineers should insist on working together in projects. Meaning the Engineer is available during the concept design phase and the Designer is available during the testing design phase. (With iterative testing the designer must be available with each design cycle.)
  • The customers should require design and usability engineers to work together. This will often require the usability engineer to come in early for 1-2 days in the conceptual design phase before their main work begins week(s) later. (Yes that also means if the engineer is an external contractor, the customer must pay the Usability Engineer for this work.)
  • Customers should also realize the usability engineers do not provide solutions they propose challenges and problems that need to be solved.
  • Usability Engineers may be great designers or maybe crap designers but as long as they include objective design rationale for their proposed solutions they will always be helpful
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